Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?

Posted by Zenphamy 5 years, 5 months ago to Philosophy
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CONSCIOUSNESS
This is a topic I haven't seen much conversation about here in the Gulch, yet it still remains the most contentious issue amongst philosophers and scientist and the religious, and I guess also the far out alternative thinkers of the world. And as an Objectivist, I haven't read much in that philosophy's literature. I'm sure it's out there, but so far I haven't run into serious discussions of it. I'm sure that anyone who's given any kind of thought to philosophy has thought of this subject, at least on more than a superficial level.

So the questions arise, what is it, how can it be described, what's it's attributes, it's identity, is it real, and a lot of others that spin off from there? What's it like to be you looking out to the world around you?

What say you Gulchers??

From the start of the article:
"One spring morning in Tucson, Arizona, in 1994, an unknown philosopher named David Chalmers got up to give a talk on consciousness, by which he meant the feeling of being inside your head, looking out – or, to use the kind of language that might give a neuroscientist an aneurysm, of having a soul. Though he didn’t realise it at the time, the young Australian academic was about to ignite a war between philosophers and scientists, by drawing attention to a central mystery of human life – perhaps the central mystery of human life – and revealing how embarrassingly far they were from solving it.

The scholars gathered at the University of Arizona – for what would later go down as a landmark conference on the subject – knew they were doing something edgy: in many quarters, consciousness was still taboo, too weird and new agey to take seriously, and some of the scientists in the audience were risking their reputations by attending. Yet the first two talks that day, before Chalmers’s, hadn’t proved thrilling. “Quite honestly, they were totally unintelligible and boring – I had no idea what anyone was talking about,” recalled Stuart Hameroff, the Arizona professor responsible for the event. “As the organiser, I’m looking around, and people are falling asleep, or getting restless.” He grew worried. “But then the third talk, right before the coffee break – that was Dave.” With his long, straggly hair and fondness for all-body denim, the 27-year-old Chalmers looked like he’d got lost en route to a Metallica concert. “He comes on stage, hair down to his butt, he’s prancing around like Mick Jagger,” Hameroff said. “But then he speaks. And that’s when everyone wakes up.”

The brain, Chalmers began by pointing out, poses all sorts of problems to keep scientists busy. How do we learn, store memories, or perceive things? How do you know to jerk your hand away from scalding water, or hear your name spoken across the room at a noisy party? But these were all “easy problems”, in the scheme of things: given enough time and money, experts would figure them out. There was only one truly hard problem of consciousness, Chalmers said. It was a puzzle so bewildering that, in the months after his talk, people started dignifying it with capital letters – the Hard Problem of Consciousness – and it’s this: why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life? And how does the brain manage it? How could the 1.4kg lump of moist, pinkish-beige tissue inside your skull give rise to something as mysterious as the experience of being that pinkish-beige lump, and the body to which it is attached?"

I realize this is probably an impossible request to satisfy for some, but here goes anyway. If those that wish to discuss their god and their bible as answers to this topic could please attempt to offer arguments or statements that the rest of us could rationally and logically think about and respond to, it would be greatly appreciated by myself at least.

I have no wish whatsoever to belittle anyone's beliefs, but I'm seeking knowledge or theories or just ideas that might further my understanding of a question that to date, science hasn't been able to answer (and that doesn't mean that I don't think science can't ultimately answer). But I'll refer you to this from the article:

"Christof Koch, the chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and a key player in the Obama administration’s multibillion-dollar initiative to map the human brain, is about as credible as neuroscientists get. But, he told me in December: “I think the earliest desire that drove me to study consciousness was that I wanted, secretly, to show myself that it couldn’t be explained scientifically. I was raised Roman Catholic, and I wanted to find a place where I could say: OK, here, God has intervened. God created souls, and put them into people.” Koch assured me that he had long ago abandoned such improbable notions. Then, not much later, and in all seriousness, he said that on the basis of his recent research he thought it wasn’t impossible that his iPhone might have feelings."
SOURCE URL: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jan/21/-sp-why-cant-worlds-greatest-minds-solve-mystery-consciousness


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  • Posted by dbhalling 5 years, 5 months ago
    I don't have an answer and I don't think we have enough knowledge about the brain to answer that question. However, I think we can bound it.

    1) Consciousness is an attribute of living thing.
    2) Not all living things are conscious. For instance a plant is not conscious. It does react to external stimuli, such as growing toward the Sun, but it has no choice to do something different.
    3) Simple animals such as beetles do seem to make decisions, but it easy to dismiss this as random or pseudo random movements designed to find food or shelter or a mate.
    4) As we move up the evolutionary scale we see animals, such as dogs, that appear to have some problem solving skills. They can respond to new situations, have some ability to respond to language, but both can be seen as fairly simple responses to their environment. We do not generally think of dogs as conscious, however they appear to have the ability to form simple concepts or associations. For instance, they know the difference between a dog and a cat.
    5) According to reports some chimpanzees have learned sign language at the level of a three year old. This seems to imply they can form concepts (categorize things) and even associated that category with a symbol.
    6) What we don’t see in non-humans is the ability to invent and create things. They may use some simple tools, but it stops. This leads me to believe that they do not have the ability to reason with concepts. So let’s say that being conscious requires the ability to reason with concepts.
    7) We can image a computer that has some ability to create concepts and even manipulate them however would that make it conscious? The easy answer would be no, because it is not alive. So being conscious seems to mean being alive and the ability to reason with concepts.
    That is the best I can come up with at this time.

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    • Posted by A-is-A 5 years, 5 months ago
      Remember, consciousness just means an awareness of reality, or existence. It doesn't necessarily mean volition, or reason (although those require consciousness). All animals with an awareness of reality have consciousness, although we are the only ones with the ability to conceptualize the process and identify it explicitly. It would be immensely interesting if science can someday explain the HOW of consciousness, but only philosophy can explain what it is, the awareness of reality.
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    • Posted by 5 years, 5 months ago
      Good start db; But I see a problem with #6. We see all types of animals that build nests, lairs, dens, etc. I started to think, but do they decorate, and then I run into the Lyre bird. But I'm not sure we could call that reasoning or concept formulation and manipulation. None of that seems to be be learned behavior. It's instinctual responses.

      But I think we can add that conscious (at least of a man) can project, purely through imagination. It can also develop or conceive of concepts and future scenarios, not based on actual or learned experience. It can rate or evaluate future actions not necessary for immediate survival or comfort. And it can modify immediate instinctual reaction without external assistance.

      I'm still thinking, but as you say, the answer isn't immediate or easy except the bounding.

      As a side note, remembering your interest in QM, I ran into some work by a David Bohm, a student of Oppenheimer that appears to have done work on both QM and Consciousness. I've ordered some of his writing, but haven't had a chance to read much yet.


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    • Posted by $ jbrenner 5 years, 5 months ago
      A couple of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes focusing on Commander Data and three machines called Exocomps addressed what the borderline of sentience is in a thorough, yet entertaining, way.
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  • Posted by $ jbrenner 5 years, 5 months ago
    There are certainly Christians out there that do science and engineering that do so for the reason that Dr. Koch quoted, "“I think the earliest desire that drove me to study consciousness was that I wanted, secretly, to show myself that it couldn’t be explained scientifically. I was raised Roman Catholic, and I wanted to find a place where I could say: OK, here, God has intervened. God created souls, and put them into people.”
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    • Posted by 5 years, 5 months ago
      Aah j; but then he adds "Koch assured me that he had long ago abandoned such improbable notions."

      I'm comfortable that we all might have differing primary motivations or biases for the beginning of the search, but we're still left with the questions. How can we understand something we haven't yet figured out how to describe.
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      • Posted by $ jbrenner 5 years, 5 months ago
        True, and I read that as well. If you do the science correctly, it shouldn't matter what the bias was going in. Of course, some scientists aren't that ethical.

        Regarding the questions, most of us are happy to admit that we are at some intermediate (or perhaps beginning) level of understanding for now, and then go where the science leads us. The journey has its own rewards.
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  • Posted by $ jbrenner 5 years, 5 months ago
    Thanks for bringing this topic up as a separate post from where another Gulcher and I were having a vigorous debate about a similar topic over the last couple of days.

    The development of consciousness is one of the areas that an atheistic view of the universe has the hardest time coming up with an explanation for. That is why it is not discussed much in Objectivist literature. Certainly evolution is at least a partial explanation, but by itself, I do not find it satisfying as a complete explanation.

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    • Posted by 5 years, 5 months ago
      Yes j; I was beginning to watch the referenced thread and had started a comment when I stumbled on this topic which put an entirely different face on it for me. I find this to be a primary principle to be addressed in any discussion of philosophy, and I'm sure in religion as well.
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      • Posted by $ jbrenner 5 years, 5 months ago
        Existence certainly exists, but the whys and hows of existence, particularly consciousness, are valid questions to ponder. I am very skeptically watching both scientific studies and anecdotal accounts of near-death experiences. Some of it unquestionably is hype, but the details in some of the stories challenge enough of my presuppositions that I have to at least consider them as possible evidence. The problem is with testing such evidence, because of the obvious dangers in trying to reproduce the evidence.
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  • Posted by j_IR1776wg 5 years, 5 months ago
    Perhaps consciousness is so basic that its appearance cannot be explained. Just as Rand wrote "Existence exists", perhaps the only intelligent statement that be uttered on this subject is Consciousness exists.
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  • Posted by $ Thoritsu 5 years, 5 months ago
    Jerking one's hand away from a hot stove (scalding water), does not involve ones brain. This autonomic response is handled by the spinal column. This is no mystery or secret.

    It is not up to science to demonstrate a basis for life, social structure et al. It is up to religion to demonstrate the same, and everyone is still wailing after some 2,000 yrs.
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  • Posted by Robbie53024 5 years, 5 months ago
    You don't see it addressed much because any time that some of us do, we get shouted down as proselytizing.
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    • Posted by khalling 5 years, 5 months ago
      he simply asked for rationality. For many of us, how do we respond to a quote from the Bible? There is nothing to say. I want discussions based on reason and logic and science. Explanations which are mystical have no rational response. Religion is clearly addressed in the post, so it's fair game, Zen just wanted parameters. But there are other post on science, which religion isn't part of the framework for the post and yet it always becomes a dominant discussion.
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      • Posted by $ MikeMarotta 5 years, 5 months ago
        Quote the Bible or quote the Iliad, the point is that this or that truth has been appreciated by reflective thinkers since ancient times. I understand your aversion to the Bible. However, unlike the Iliad or the Upanishads or the Dialogs of Plato, the Bible is one ancient work that every literate person in the western world can reference.
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  • Posted by $ MikeMarotta 5 years, 5 months ago
    My favorite theory comes from Julian Jaynes. Writing empowered self-reflection. Like fire and the bow-and-arrow it spread by cultural diffusion. Still, while perhaps a myth, it is said that first-contact Native Americans did not lie because - unlike Odysseus - they could not: they had no sense of Self.
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    • Posted by dbhalling 5 years, 5 months ago
      Not a fan of writing or language as the answer. Sounds a little like Chomsky
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      • Posted by $ MikeMarotta 5 years, 5 months ago
        In _Breaking the Mayan Code_ Michael Coe tells the history of the attempts. Most archaeologists accepted the glyphs as ornaments only. In Moscow, the communists figured that different peoples at the same stage of development would invent similar solutions to similar problems. They attacked the "ornaments" as hieroglyphics. They did not succeed for other reasons. Here in America, even suggesting that line of research in the 1950s was dismissed as communist thinking. (The solution came from accepting the fact that the "Mayans" were still living right there. So the local languages were applied to the hieroglyphics, successfully.) My point is that just because something "sounds like somebody we agree to dislike" does not mean that it is false.

        As for Jaynes, it is a broad theory, but he offers compelling facts. For me, the essential one - like the moons of Jupiter for Galileo - was that the Iliad and the Odyssey motivations are expressed differently. The heroes at Troy did not have the same sense of self evidenced by clever Odysseus the Liar. The Loeb Classic Library provides dual-language editions. Modern translators put egos where the ancient poets did not.

        Also, I actually read Chomsky's original works last year at this time. I was not impressed; but it had nothing to do with this. Do you have a citation?
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        • Posted by 5 years, 5 months ago
          Jaynes and his supporters go on to justify their split brain theories, using religious descriptions of personal god commands and aural hallucination commands of schizophrenics by maintaining that they are evidence of duality and lack of self as we identify it today. To further justify such claims, they even use descriptions from and styles of writing of the Old Testament portion of the Bible. I think they're reaching and attempting to describe something they haven't identified yet.
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      • Posted by $ MikeMarotta 5 years, 5 months ago
        Dale, I realized later that you were not referring to Chomsky's theory of universal grammar.

        Like many others, Chomsky apparently claimed that only humans have true language. In response, researchers named one of their subjects "Nim Chimpsky." Moreover, Chomsky believed that language is genetically-based in humans, that we have a cerebral "organ" for it.

        That is contrary to Julian Jaynes' theory that while spoken human language evolved from animal calls, writing was invented. As a specific invention, like fire, writing changed us; and it changed our inner experience.
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        • Posted by dbhalling 5 years, 5 months ago
          You are correct. I do not think language is genetically programmed nor do I think it is what makes us conscious which my philosophy professor in college tried to push.
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        • Posted by 5 years, 5 months ago
          I've personally never thought much of Chomsky, I do think he knows a lot about language, but that doesn't translate into knowledge about how it arose or it's effects on the brain or consciousness or genetics. As to Jaynes' theory of animal calls morphing into spoken language, That neglects a lot of other findings such as the development of the human voice structures as well as significant findings in animal language such as that between the two types of birds, one with genetic derived calls and the other with learned calls.

          While I agree that writing was an invention as important as the use of fire and tool construction, I would argue that consciousness and the ability to form concepts led to the inventions rather than the other way around.
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    • Posted by 5 years, 5 months ago
      Jaynes' descriptions of the dualism of the brain, sounds a lot like what Edgar Cayce and others of the mystic types of that age described in their 'root race' theories and writings. I don't buy much of that argument, or that social development of the last 5,000 years or so led to language or provided the impetus to get the two sides of the brain talking to each other.
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